Northwestern alumni magazine gives us the real Stephen Colbert

The current issue of the Northwestern University alumni magazine is featuring a cover story on Stephen, which is one of the most in-depth articles I’ve ever read on the beginning of his career. There’s a lot of fascinating background information on his time at Northwestern and his earliest days as an actor, and comments from many of his old roommates and fellow actors that offer insight into both Stephen’s character and his development as a performer.

The Real Stephen Colbert
Comedy Central star goes beyond truthiness about his Northwestern days and why he gave up drama for improv
by Cate Plys

. . .

“We try very hard to let the audience know that we’re having fun, not just making fun,” Colbert explains. “That’s why, as professional as I like to be, if occasionally I get caught enjoying the show — I try not to, I try to stay very straight in character, even though he’s a ridiculous character — if occasionally it slips that I’m enjoying myself maybe even more than the audience, that’s OK. I think it’s important that they see me every so often enjoying it, so they know that I’m not as big a jerk as that guy.”

By “that guy,” of course, he means Stephen Colbert.

. . .

“It’s all in such positive spirit with such radiantly positive energy that it’s both infectious to watch and be a part of, and you can’t be offended by it,” says former classmate Aaron Posner (C86)… “He’s got this Tom Sawyer positive prankster in there. It’s all a joke, but it’s never mean-spirited.”

Colbert doesn’t just work with a script. He has to improvise his character’s response as the show develops, particularly during guest interviews, figuring out how to make his point by saying the exact opposite. In contrast, Colbert’s equally acclaimed colleague, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, essentially plays himself on TV. So Colbert plays Ginger Rogers to Stewart’s Fred Astaire — doing everything backward and in high heels.

“I think it’s impossible what he’s doing,” says Posner.

. . .

As a senior Posner directed Colbert in a Northwestern production of Mark Leib’s Terry Won’t Talk. Colbert played a high school principal, says Posner, “very much a cigar-chomping, blue-blazered, high-status idiot. So it was territory he was already exploring as far back as then. Like now, he could play fairly reprehensible people in a way that you still really liked them.”

Read the full article here.

In addition to the main article, there are extra links in the sidebar to online exclusives, including a very funny piece called Rooming with Stephen Colbert and another one revealing what his college friends are up to now, with more anecdotes about Stephen during his college years. The article also includes some especially interesting pics of Stephen from that time, complete with beard. It’s wonderful to get such a detailed glimpse into Stephen’s past and see how it brought him to where he is today.


  1. oomygoodness When I saw that picture I almost had a pregnant!

  2. Mr. Arkadin says:

    I just read this today! I spied it on DB’s twitter account. :p
    This is so great! It’s the most in-depth account of his college yrs. that I’ve read. (Including a picture of his college girlfriend.)
    It mostly focuses on his friend’s perspective of Stephen in college & what they think of his sucess today.
    Easily one of my top three stories about Stephen ever!

    • I’m guessing “the” girlfriend. :) Certainly pretty enough to be. Definitely the 500 Days of Summer kind of girl.

      He looks ten years younger now than he does in that picture, thank goodness he stopped smoking! Otherwise he’d look like Gollum right now. Adorable though.

  3. friedthing says:

    LOOOVVVVVE… <3 *Happy sigh* Thanks for that link!

  4. MaryLovesColbert says:

    Wow! I saw the awesome picture but I had no idea there was such an awesome article attached. Thanks for posting this!

  5. This article just makes me want to go to theatre school.

    I love the old pictures. He looks so different with the beard, but when you look closer, you can see the same twinkle in his eyes that he still has.

    • friedthing says:

      It’s also completely adorable that he had those laugh lines around his eyes even in college! Honestly, I barely notice the beard because the whole picture just screams “LOOK AT MY EYES!!” :)

      • lockhart43 says:

        ITA with you about the laugh lines; they’re ridiculously adorable. Though it’s hard not to have laugh lines when you’ve got a smile as big and bright as Stephen’s. :)

        As for the beard, I think it looks AH-mazing on 22-year old Stephen. But I like present-Stephen more clean shaven.

  6. pkyoubuggin says:

    A delightful (series) of articles, and fun to learn about SC’s college friends. But I am having conflicting feelings about that beard/mustache.

    • Karenatasha says:

      I’m with you! Loved the article, and learning more about his earlier work, but I much prefer the way Stephen looks now to the bearded younger version. Yes, he already had the twinkle in his eye and the warmth in his smile, but the styling’s definitely better now.

  7. omg i just spent the past hour catching up on colbert news!! first the reddit interview and now this!! ahhh- im in love :D
    and that picture!!!! desktop meet your new background!!

  8. wriststrongtanline says:

    Last night I was in bed, and for some reason I got up and came downstairs and got on Reddit, and here was this picture! I guess it was some sort of Stephenth Sense pulling me out of bed. I wish I didn’t have to go to work right now…I guess I’ll be up tonight carefully reading this article! Thanks for posting!!

  9. I did the happy dance when this issue appeared in the mail the other day. The insight into Stephen’s college days was highly amusing and I enjoyed learning that his off-campus housing wasn’t too far from mine :) The best part may be the picture of young Stephen that starts this post – the sparkle in his eyes has never changed.

    • Hey, I owe you a big hat tip, because I think it was you who originally forwarded us the link to the article, yes? Sorry I forgot to acknowledge that in my post — I was dog-tired when I did it last night and it was just an oversight. We always appreciate getting tips from Zoners!

      • I did send over the link yesterday, but I couldn’t say if I was the first. I was just so excited to see the article (not to mention the cover of the magazine, which was the picture from Vanity Fair) that I had to share with all of you. I’m sorry you were up so late putting the post together, Ann, but thank-you so much for doing that.

  10. That wonderful picture has been doing the rounds, and it looks like the article is catching up, I just read it on tumblr before coming here!
    Great insight into Stephen’s younger days and brings back house-sharing memories for me!

  11. Mrs Colbert the 2nd says:

    A lovely, lovely read. I adore getting to read more about the real Stephen and as for the pictures…well, I would definitely have chased him round the campus! What an absolute cutie!

  12. marleygirl84 says:

    What a great read! I love how Stephen thinks he was such a jerk in college even though it seems everyone still thought he was sweet and funny. I used to wonder just how he changed from “insufferable” to adorable and joyous, but now I know that he was mostly overreacting and that he has basically been the same the whole time, just maybe a little more serious and artsy before.

    One of my favorite parts:
    Colbert switches to a high-pitched lilt to speak for Blanche. “She’d always go, ‘I can see my ribs!’” He switches back and forth from high-pitched Blanche to authoritative Colbert tones:

    “Blanche, you cannot see your ribs.”

    “‘Yes, I can!’”

    “No, Blanche, you have a problem!”

    “I don’t!”


  13. Great article told from a slightly different point of view. And I. Love. The Picture!

    It’s definitely the eyes, well, the smile, too. Oh, and his hair is great.

  14. This article was really great. I love how we were able to learn about Stephen from a different point of view.
    And my favorite part of the article has to be:
    “Then he gives up and lays his head on his desk, face down, in pure mortification. (Finding: He really does have a great, thick head of hair.)”

  15. “Unlike Rush [Limbaugh], you don’t have a prescription pill problem,” Levine answered. “Unlike Matt Lauer, you’re not running all over the place with people other than your wife. The bottom line is, you live a good life.”

    And that right there explains why I like Stephen so much. I love knowing that he’s so freakin’ nice, that he’s a truly good, kind-hearted incredibly intelligent guy. It’s not at all surprising, of course, it’s just really nice to know. If that makes sense. The story of him suddenly recognizing one of his old college friends at a taping is so cute.

    Absolutely fascinating articles, loved learning more about Stephen’s early days and his college friends (who all sound like pretty cool people in their own rights). Such fun stories. Thank you so much for sharing this stuff with everyone. Much appreciated.

    And the pictures…oh, man, why did I have to be but a small child in the mid ’80s? Sigh. Very, very nice.

  16. lockhart43 says:

    I was *finally* able to sit down and read this today! What a wonderful article, so many great quotes from both Stephen and his old roommates. I really love this line from the Where Are They Now? section:
    “He was the kind of person who would say something to someone that he knew would be a kind thing to say, or make them feel good. … He was genuine about it. That’s something that I was envious about — that he was the kind of person who was funny, smart, good looking and actually a nice guy.”

    My favorite part from the actual article though is probably from Aaron Posner. I like that he said Stephen has a Tom Sawyer/positive prankster quality. He could not be more right about that. :) And I never get sick of the “Song For The Whales” story about the moment where Stephen knew he wanted to do comedy forever. I love that story.

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